Hailing a cab in Bangkok is like playing reverse Russian roulette - you want the unlikely to happen to you. The reality is that you never know if the first driver will agree to take you to your destination; or the second, or the third....
Because of the bad rep some cabbies have acquired, traffic police recently announced they would become harsher on drivers who refuse to take passengers. Victims of cab rejection are being encouraged to report picky drivers directly to the police so they can be arrested and/or fined without warning. While we all know that not all cab drivers are bad people, there's also no denying that collectively they aren't viewed in the most positive light by the public.
Besides being picky about their passengers, some can take you on a detour, be rude, drop you in the middle of the road, or even commit a crime against you. On the other hand, however, there have been many knights and knightresses in two-toned vehicles who have returned belongings to forgetful passengers, helped with cars that are broken down and performed other random acts of kindness.
We talk to three drivers who not only refuse to refuse passengers but also go to extra lengths to improve the image of Thai cabbies. We find out why they do what they do and get their thoughts on what needs to be done to improve taxi-passenger relationships.
Dee holds some of his 56 "friendship" books
JAI DEE TAXI
Dee "Jadee" Prasitsuwan's taxi provides more than just transport. It also serves as a karaoke booth, a small museum of international coins and banknotes as well as a donation point. On top of these unusual features, ya dom (inhalant) and snacks are available for free. He also offers discounts. Matter-of-factly, he says about his discount policy: "If the fare is B60 and you sang 10 songs to me, you pay me B10."
The veteran took up driving a taxi after he retired from the army about a decade ago. "I chose the job because I can work at the times I want. I like the freedom."
Sing karaoke or eat snacks for free in Dee’s backseat
Three months into his new job, Uncle Dee got bored and then got creative. "When I was a passenger, riding a taxi was such a boring experience because I had nothing to do [while stuck in the traffic]. After I became a driver, it became even more boring so I added something to my car to make my passengers happy or smile."
Uncle Dee started by putting stickers of national flags on the outside of his car to get noticed, covering the seats in national flag colours, and installing a booming audio system; and it is clear he didn't stop there. His cab's reputation as "Taxi-Karaoke" has led to multiple exposures in the media over the years.
When asked about decorating his car's ceiling and dashboard with international currencies, he says, "They were tips given to me by passengers. I put banknotes in clear plastic sheets along with the name and phone number of the person who gave them to me and stuck them on with two-sided adhesive tape."
They aren't simply his trophies but also act as funds to make merit together with his passengers. "When I donate the tips to build something at a Buddhist temple, I call the passenger up to let them know where their money has gone," Dee says with a broad smile, fanning some banknotes.
To ease the problem of drivers who refuse to take passengers, he suggests, "There should be more NGV stations so the drivers don't have to travel far or get in the long queue in order to refill.
"I find that when your goal is to show that you really want to offer good service, you get more back in return." Evidently it's true as countless Thai and foreign passengers have tipped him hundreds of thousands of baht. They have also written their fond memories as his passenger in 56 "friendship" books that Dee is so proud of.
A Thai passenger wrote, "Uncle, you're sooo cool! I wish to see more people like you in Thailand. I'm so proud that we have a good guy like you in our country."
Noi promises there are no baby cockroaches in his car
A bad episode as a passenger has made Sanong "Noi" Orn-anong the outstanding driver he is today. He recalls: "It was about 20 years ago. I came to Bangkok for the first time and it was my first taxi ride. The driver really did take me for a ride."
Noi arrived in Mor Chit from Nakhon Sawan and a cabbie aggressively approached him. Being new to Bangkok, he agreed to the ride. The driver took his bag while he waited in the car. Eventually, six more passengers were crammed in the same car during the next two hours. The driver drove the other six passengers to their destinations before he dropped Noi off. Moreover, he charged Noi B120, which was a lot at that time.
"I vowed not to mistreat or dupe people because I know how terrible it feels," he says. After years of factory work, he decided to get behind the wheel professionally in 1993. He dresses up in a uniform that resembles a commercial pilot and classes up the job with neatness through his extra politeness, white cloths that cover all the seats, three boxes of tissue paper, white lights, Listerine and surgical masks.
"I feel the number of taxis is increasing, as is my competition. People have other modes of transport to chose from. I want to do my job right while standing out among the crowd," he adds. "I want to show how committed I am to the job and hopefully when people see me they would realise that I take my job seriously."
Regarding the mixed reputation of taxi drivers, Noi comments: "Personally I think if the owners of the cars cut down the rent, it will reduce the chance of drivers rejecting passengers. A driver who rents his car wants to make as much money as he can during his shift (which lasts about 12 hours) so if a passenger asks to go where the traffic is bad, the driver would make up an excuse not to go there. I don't think reducing the rent would get rid of the problem entirely but it should ease it. More NGV stations would also help."
Noi also feels that taxi drivers can spread a good impression about Thailand to the world. "We're among the first Thais foreigners interact with when they arrive here so if we behave badly they may spread bad words about Thailand. You may think driving a taxi is a small job but I think it comes with more responsibilities than people realise."
DHAMMA ON WHEELS
Diew offers transport and Buddhist teachings
Suwannachart "Diew" Phromchat advertises the fact that he will go anywhere you ask him to and that you can seek solace in Buddhist teachings in his car. He marries his religious belief with a personal philosophy that you can do good anywhere while taking passengers to their destinations.
After spending 14 years as a monk, he decided to take his temple with him on the road. "People may feel stressed or frustrated while being stuck in traffic and I want them to jai yen yen by reading poems and writings on Buddhist teachings I put on my car's ceiling," he says.
If you aren't a reader, Diew is willing to recite teachings by Buddhatat Bhiku for you for free until you say sathuu. "I believe that if you hail me then it means fate has brought us together. And I won't refuse to take you."
Diew also offers to take Buddhist monks and nuns to their destinations free of charge. "It's my way to make merit while being on the road. What I lose in income, I receive in boon and words of wisdom from them."
Regarding the taxi situation in Bangkok, he says, "While I'm on traffic radio, I always thank my fellow taxi drivers who do their job right because in doing so they help raise the image of taxi drivers in general and bring business.
"We drivers should behave so people want our services or else we are going to drive business away. However, you can't expect everyone to be good. If you want to make a good change, start with yourself. Hopefully when someone sees the good example, they may be inspired to do the same."
Fine words that strike a chord with your quarterlife crisis
TAXI TALES: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
We talk to random people about their taxi experiences. Here are some of the most interesting.
"I once took a cab from Phetchaburi Soi 7 to the All Seasons building and the meter reached 100 baht. All I had was a 1000-baht note and 40 baht in change. He said to just give him what I had so I gave him the 40. He wasn't being sarcastic or anything. This type of taxi driver is very rare. He deserves to be praised."
- Name, postgraduate student
"A few years back, I jumped wearily into a cab after a night out at Khao San. The driver appeared agitated and I suspected he was on something. Before I could change cars, he sped in the opposite direction I'd requested. The streets were deserted and he refused to let me out. Finally he was forced to stop at a red light, where thankfully a policeman stood. I jumped out and ran towards him, calling for help. He pulled the cabbie over, shook him down, and agreed the driver was on drugs. But being that he had nothing illegal on him, the police let him go. He hailed another cab and checked the driver for me. No need, as he was an angel, who more than made up for the frightening experience with his fatherly kindness and sensitivity towards the terrible situation I'd just faced. Being a passenger in Bangkok is a mixed bag, but overall most of my experiences have been reasonable and even pleasant."
- Susan, volunteer worker
"I once met a driver who paused the running meter every time the car was stuck at the red light! I paid less than I would to other drivers. I was shocked!"
- Phueng, uni student
"I was with a group of guy friends and the taxi driver offered to take us to a massage parlour. He said the girls there would definitely enjoy young flesh and pretty faces like ours."
- Nott, photographer
"One night, I was so drunk I left my purse in a taxi. It had thousands of baht in it but the purse itself was so much more expensive than that. Later, I got the money back in the mail, but not the purse. He must have realised how expensive it was."
- Boom, uni student
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT GETTING A CAB
There's still a long way to go before all cab drivers begin accepting passengers with an open door. Here are some tips to increase your chance of getting a taxi or, at least, tam jai.
1. Call a taxi centre (e.g. 02-196-2255 Garden Taxi Radio Centre, 1681 Taxi Radio with English instruction, 1661 Siam Centre). They will arrange a cab to pick you up. You'll have to pay B20 on top of the fare and wait for about 20 minutes.
2. Avoid hailing a cab at these five spots notorious for picky taxi drivers according to The Department of Land Transport - MBK, CentralWorld, Pantip Plaza in Prathunam, Siam Square and Sanam Luang. If you can't, then prepare yourself for some rejection.
3. Consider other types of public transport such as buses, the BTS, MRT, boats, vans, songtaews, rot pok pok and motorcycle taxis, most of which are abundant all over the city. In the process of exploring these alternatives, you'll get to exercise your body and planning skills. You may even arrive at your destination faster and for less money.
4. If you happen to be in a touristy area and are Thai, prepare for some taxi rejection.
5. In cases of rain and evening rush hours, the possibility for getting a taxi is nonexistent because life likes to be ironic.
"Taxis, taxis everywhere... but not one to take me home," is a dilemma many Bangkokians have experienced. Here are some stats that show what the current taxi situation is like.